Inside a cathedral conference room, a unique ministry is helping married couples keep Christ at the center

The aromatic blend of tacos, lasagna, and pulled pork might have pulled for attention as the seven couples assembled with Archbishop José H. Gomez in one of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels conference rooms on a late Sunday afternoon.

But before the potluck dinner was approached, an hourlong exchange of ideas for those at the September meeting of the Cathedral Couples for Christ (CCC) provided more nourishing and spiritual food for thought, heart, and soul.

When CCC began forming eight years ago, then-Cathedral Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik and Father Francis Mendoza handpicked three couples to be part of a wedding orientation team. All had been married at the downtown LA cathedral. 

That soon expanded to eight couples, and today CCC has a roster of more than 30, some married as long as 14 years, another just eight months into it. 

The regular meetings dedicate time for prayer, Scripture reading, discussion on family-related topics, and then the meal-sharing. Many have since joined the cathedral’s marriage and baptism preparation classes, as well as other outreach programs, which include hosting last February’s World Marriage Day Mass.

“This is an important and wonderful ministry, because traditionally we don’t have many occasions to minister to these couples after they are married — until they have babies for baptisms and then First Communion preparation,” said Archbishop Gomez, a regular attendee for more than a year. 

At this gathering, he was smiling through the experience of some jet lag from a recent meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis.

“When I first came here and saw this group, I thought it was a great idea. They have a great system of coming together to share, to learn from each other and to support each other,” he said.

Michael and Ivy Sudjati, who now have children aged 7 and 3 and live in Sherman Oaks, were one of the first three couples asked to join, with Steve and Lisette Estrada and Jesse and Elisa De Anda.

“The goal of the group was not a ‘therapy session,’ but rather a safe place for other couples to have real conversations about God and the vocation of marriage,” said Ivy Sudjati. 

“Faith, as we have learned, has always been a powerful, uniting force. Although our group has grown quite a bit from when we first started, we are still able to find common ground with the newlyweds and often are pleasantly reminded of how beautiful and what a blessing it is to be in love and to be able to journey with someone God has prepared for you.”

Added Michael Sudjati: “One of the biggest lessons that Msgr. Kevin and Father Francis continue to teach us is that our marriages are not just for us as a couple. Rather, like many things in life, our marriages are blessings that we are stewards of and we are all called to witness our love as God’s overarching love for all.

“That is so important, especially in today’s world where everyone tells you to focus inwardly, that more people see the lasting fulfillment and joy that comes with focusing outside of ourselves and our own families. I think Christ-centered marriages and the values they stand for — love, fidelity, integrity — are critical to the fabric of not only our Church, but our society.”

Diana Gonzalez, married just two weeks to husband Rodrigo when they joined in 2010, also looks at the meetings as an extended “date night” experience. Now their children have play dates and attend one another’s sacramental events.

“What’s so beautiful about this is how we value Christ in our marriages,” said Gonzalez, who now has a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and lives in South Pasadena. They frequently attend Holy Family Church. 

“We also get together outside the CCC meetings because it has created a nourishing community and family inside and outside the cathedral walls.”

David and Mercedes Doeling, married eight years and also attending Holy Family, were the night’s group leaders as they discussed the art of communication. 

A book titled “365 Connecting Questions for Couples,” by Casey and Meygan Caston, became the starting point to contemplate questions about the language of love, important strategies that go with it, and even the times when not talking and simply listening works.

“Growing up I never saw my parents fight or argue, so I think that led me to believe that couples should never argue, and if they do then that meant things wouldn’t work out,” said Mercedes Doeling. “Clearly all couples have disagreements. I am sure my parents did as well; I just never witnessed them. 

“It has helped me to communicate better with David, and I learn so much from the other couples in seeing how they communicate with each other when dealing with conflict or difficult situations in a marriage. I am beyond grateful to Msgr. Kevin and now Archbishop Gomez for allowing us to have a space where we feel comfortable.”

David Doeling said having Archbishop Gomez at the meeting has become “very special. ... His insights into marriage, particularly Catholic marriages, adds immeasurably not only to our discussions but to how we view and live.”

Archbishop Gomez reiterated the importance of communication as the meeting closed, reminding them “it is not easy, especially in our society as we communicate in so many different ways. It is a challenge for our Church as well.”

He said it is “one of my dreams” to see similar CCC groups established throughout the archdiocese “because it makes so much sense.” Kostelnik has done so since his move to St. Joseph Church in Long Beach, while Mendoza has recreated a program at St. Finbar Church in Burbank.

Archbishop Gomez said listening to the couples’ discussion “absolutely” helps him better understand the current issues facing young couples.

“They give beautiful testimony to what the lay faithful are going through in their lives and while they actively participate in the life of the Church,” he said. “Listening to them has been a great blessing for me. The way they support each other, and reach out to other couples, is beautiful to see.”

Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.

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